How to Start, Grow, and Maintain a Martial Arts Studio – The Part-Time Commercial Studio

Prior to getting into this post regarding the part-time commercial studio, let’s do a brief recap of how we got to this point.  We got the ball rolling by starting some classes at a YMCA, fitness facility, community center, or similar type venue.  We volunteered to be instructors in order to grow faster and build a strong community presence.

We also spent a lot of time and effort in creating a comprehensive business plan that will guide our studio through all the milestones we set forth.  We are now ready for the next step which is to open a commercial space.  I still consider this part of the soft start approach since we will be running the commercial space part-time and slowly grow it to full-time status.

Remember, the business plan we created will guide us through this process.  We used the business plan to determine where our commercial studio will be located and what demographic market it will serve.  The financial projections in the business plan showed us when it was time to open the commercial space.  Once you reach that magic number of students, don’t talk yourself out of it, just do it.  If you have done your homework, the risk will be minimal.  That is one of the many benefits to the soft start approach.

The rest of this post will focus on after you open the commercial space; how to grow it to the point you can move into the next phase, the full-time commercial studio.

One thing you need to consider prior to opening the commercial studio which I have not addressed yet, is whether to keep classes at the YMCA or community center that you started in.  There are pros and cons to both approaches.  I decided to keep my YMCA classes going with the mindset that I could reach more students and use it as a feeder to my commercial studio.  Classes at a commercial studio are going to be more expensive than at a YMCA so it is no surprise that not all the YMCA students will move to the commercial studio.

This approach proved to be too much work with not much return and after a year, I gave the YMCA classes completely to another instructor.  Despite being less than 2 miles apart, the YMCA and commercial studios served completely different markets.  The YMCA catered to lower income families so there was little crossover.  With better implementation and assistance, I probably could have made it work but it was just not meant to be.

After letting the YMCA class go, I still stayed in close contact with them and frequently did things together which strengthened the overall martial arts community in the area.

To try and get the most students as possible to transition from the YMCA to the commercial studio, I gave them a one-time charter member offer of 15% off tuition for life.  So, even as the tuition increased over time, they would still get a discount.  There were some people that were going to follow me to the new studio regardless but I’m sure that the discount pushed a few of those who were unsure to the other side of the fence.

By keeping the YMCA classes going, I did not get as many transfers as I had hoped.  I had enough to make my initial plan work but would have liked to be in a better starting position.

Although the name of this phase is ‘part-time commercial studio’, there is nothing part-time about it other than the number of classes you have.  You will be doing full-time work during the part-time phase, in addition to a full-time day job.

It is important during this phase that you teach the majority, if not all, of the classes at the studio.  If your goal is to just own a part-time studio while keeping your day job, get others to teach classes with you.  But, if your goal is to eventually go full time, you need to be the face of the studio and the only way to do that is to be there nearly all the time.

You need to take this workload into account prior to opening the commercial studio.  It may not be right for you due to family or other personal commitments.  I was in my early twenties, unmarried, and had no kids so doing the extra work was not an issue for me.  

During the part-time commercial stage, every student counts.  You need to do all you can to get new students and go out of your way if it means getting just one new student.  I am not going to go through different marketing strategies or enrollments systems in this post, those will be discussed in a future post.  Just know that you will be trying many, many different things to attract as many new students as possible.  One week free, one-month free, free uniform with enrollment, etc. are all different things that will attract students.

While trying all these different approaches, be sure to keep track of the statistics.  How many people respond, how many people enroll, etc.  There will be another post regarding exactly what to track, how to track, and what to do with these statistics in a future post.

The ways you attract students during this stage will be low cost but high work.  Once you have more capital to work with, you can use marketing strategies that are less work but cost more.  During this phase, all you have is your time.  

You will need to utilize a wide variety of strategies to attract students such as buddy day classes, bring your parents to class day, referral rewards/contests, word of mouth, flyers, door hangers, demonstrations, booths at community fairs, parades, free classes to schools/scouts or other groups, and much more.  Think of it as a shotgun approach.  You fire a lot of bird shot in the hopes of hitting something, likely just one or two students will come out of it.

Don’t be worried about efficiency or a systematic approach at this point.  Just be focused on doing all you can to get every new student you can using every method possible and consistently growing your student count.  Once you are established a bit, you can start to be more efficient with your marketing strategies and systems.  There will be a future post on this topic as well.

One more important thing to remember while you are growing your studio in the part-time commercial phase is not to have too many classes early on.  Start with enough classes for students to attend 3 times a week.  Once these classes are full, add another class.  Keep adding classes until you get to the schedule you envision for a full-time studio.

Having many classes with only a few students will drain your energy (remember, you still have a day job). You also need time to work on growing your studio which you can’t do if you are running classes all the time.

Even if you are in the part-time phase, it is ok to have a class completely full and not allow more enrollments.  Create a waitlist or divert them to another day.  When classes are full, it makes you more desirable.  The most popular bars, clubs, and restaurants have long lines or require reservations weeks in advance, and these are still the places people want to go.

If you add classes when you are not ready, you will burn yourself out and ultimately hurt your business because your classes will not be as good as they could be.

In addition to remembering that every new student counts, you need to keep your current students happy. Teaching fun, interesting, challenging classes is of course paramount.  Start learning about each student; what their other interests are, their jobs, hobbies, etc. 

You started turning your studio into a community while you were running classes at the YMCA or community center and now it is time to go one step further.  You want to ensure all the new students you get become a part of this community while also making the community stronger.  Start doing more events outside of class that strengthen the community such as holiday parties, summer picnics, guest instructor seminars, tournaments, photo days, etc.  When people start getting together outside of the studio, they build stronger relationships which also has the added benefit of helping them continue to train.

It is important to keep in mind that during the part-time commercial studio phase your goal is to get to the point where you can quit your day job and become a full-time studio owner.  As a reminder, the criteria for this are stated in your business plan.  In the next post, I will be going over I will discuss the next step which is the transition to the successful full-time studio.

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